TORONTO — Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss says he considers himself an honorary Canadian.
After all, his first major film role was as the younger son of a Jewish immigrant family in Montreal in the hit 1974 Canadian film “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.”
Now Dreyfuss is starring in another Canadian film, “Astronaut, which hits theatres Friday in Toronto and Vancouver, and video-on-demand for all of North America the same day.
Shot in Brampton, Ont., the drama sees Dreyfuss playing a lonely widower and retired civil engineer who wins a competition to journey on the world’s first commercial space flight.
Canadian-British actress Shelagh McLeod wrote and directed the film, which Dreyfuss said fulfilled his desire for “a happy ending.”
“I am so sick and tired of dystopian novels where the Congress is blown up or the president is kidnapped and it’s all about this regressive, for lack of a better term, dark future where America has failed,'” said the founder of the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative, which advocates for the importance of civics education and champions the U.S. democratic process.
“I think if we really thought about it for more than two seconds, we’d know that letting America fail is probably the worst idea in the history of thinking,” he continued in a phone interview, noting the U.S. Bill of Rights and Constitution are a “point of pride.”
“Astronaut” co-stars include Canadian actor Colm Feore, who plays a billionaire entrepreneur organizing the space competition.
Vancouver-born McLeod said she wrote the story after meeting an inspiring man at a retirement home in which her mother eventually died in England.
“There was an old man in the garden in a wheelchair who would never come in,” McLeod recalled. “The nurses would have to drag him back in at the end of the day and he was always staring up at the sky.
“One day I just sat next to him and said, ‘What is it you’re looking for up there? What do you want?’ and he said ‘Another go.’ So that was the trigger for the story.”
Dreyfuss said the film’s theme of achieving one’s desires has resonated throughout the body of his work, which has seen him win an Oscar for “The Goodbye Girl” and get a second nomination for “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”
He credits the Ted Kotcheff-directed adaptation of the Mordecai Richler novel “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” with helping vault his career.
“‘The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz’ is very much like ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ of Canada, and everyone had an assumption about Duddy which I turned around on their heads,” said Dreyfuss, 71.
“Anyone who read the book knows that Duddy is skinny and tall and kinky haired and scratchy and nervous… And now they think he’s short and a little stocky and he laughs more than he is expected to — and that’s me. So now we’re thought of together, and I think that’s great. I really did like changing people’s assumptions about the character.”
The Montreal-shot comedy-drama was a commercial success and got an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay as well as a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign film.
Yet it almost didn’t get made.
Dreyfuss recalled Kotcheff taking him and co-star Micheline Lanctot out to lunch during production and confessing that, according to the producer, they were out of money and needed to cease filming immediately.
They’d already shot about 95 per cent of the project but hadn’t yet filmed important interstitials.
“I said to him, ‘We don’t have a movie,’ and he said, ‘That’s right, we don’t.’ And I said, ‘What are we going to do?’ and he said, ‘I’m going to keep shooting until someone takes it away from me’ — and he did,” said Dreyfuss.
“He went right on shooting, waiting for someone to come in and shackle his wrists. But it never happened, because the producer wrangled and … replaced a period with a comma and he had the money. But that was pretty close.”
When Dreyfuss saw the film for the first time at the Place des Arts screening in Montreal, his respect for Kotcheff grew even bigger.
“I realized that it takes a special kind of person to just ignore storm warnings and keep going, and that’s what Ted was,” Dreyfuss said.
“He promised Mordecai in college that he would direct that film and he did. And even now, when we see each other, it’s an amazing moment because I owe him so much.”
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press